The most famous of all Buddhist Scriptures, the Heart Sutra encompasses endless wisdom and spiritual guidance within its enigmatic 35 lines. The Heart Sutra is chanted several times daily at Mahayana Buddhist monasteries and temples throughout the world. It is work that will reward repeated and sustained attention. The Heart Sutra has been the subject of extensive commentary, both ancient and modern. One of the finest modern commentaries is the work of the American scholar and translator Red Pine which I will discuss in this review.
Red Pine's translation and commentary on the Heart Sutra is a worthy successor to Pine's earlier translation and commentary on the Diamond Sutra, a work emanating from the same "Perfection of Wisdom" group of Buddhist teachings as does the Heart Sutra. Both of Pine's studies work carefully and closely with the text, and both helped me in my approach to these difficult teachings.
Pine's study opens with his own translation of the text of the Heart Sutra. This is followed by an introduction in which Pine discusses what is known about the composition, date, and original language of the work. He reviews some of the scholarly controversies over these matters and places the origin of the Sutra in Nortwest India in about 150 A.D. He believes that the work was originally written in Sanskrit, in contrast to some recent scholars who believe it of Chinese origin.
Pine follows his historical review with an overview of the text and its purpose. Fundamentally, the Heart Sutra is concerned with teaching wisdom rather than mere knowledge. Specifically, the Sutra is concerned with transcendent wisdom which, as Pine explains it, "is based on the insight that all things, both objects and dharmas, are empty of anything self-existent. Thus, nothing can be characterized as permanent, pure or having a self. And yet, neither can anything be characterized as impermanent, impure, or lacking a self." (p. 21) The wisdom of the Heart Sutra lies beyond mere reasoning and is in the realm of insight and sustained meditation and ethical practice. Pine makes this point eloquently, and it is basic to approaching the Heart Sutra.
Pine divides the Heart Sutra into four sections each of which are explored in the four commentarial sections of his book. Each section includes a line-by-line discussion of the text of the Heart Sutra, beginning with Pine's own comments followed by the comments of other students of the work, both ancient and modern.
The first part of the work (lines 1-11) set the backdrop of the Heart Sutra in the philosophical commentary of earlier Buddhist tradition known as the Abhidharma. Pine finds the Heart Sutra was written to correct the overly rationalistic approach of certain Abhidharmic texts. In this section, Pine describes briefly the nature of Abhidharmic thought and relates it to the protagonists of the Heart Sutra: Avalokiteshvara, the principle bohdisattva of Mahayana Buddhism who is usually seen as the figure of universal compassion, Prajnaparamita, a name both for the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism and of the goddess who personifies these teachings, and Shariputra, the Buddha's chief disciple who receives the teaching of Prajnaparamita from Avalokiteshvara in the Heart Sutra.
The second part of the Heart Sutra, (lines 12-20) consists of a discussion of the conceptual categories of the Abhidharma, which the teachings of the Heart Sutra reject (or transform). Pine's commentary expands upon the nature of these categories, allowing the reader a means of approaching the key teaching of the Sutra that "form is emptiness emptiness is form."
The third part of the Heart Sutra in Pine's study, lines 21-28, discuss the bodhisattva path to wisdom and to the realization of Buddhahood, constrasting these goals with the goals of Arahantship and Nirvana in earlier Buddhist teachings. These lines teach that bodhisattvas are "without attainment" and that they live "without walls of the mind". Pine's commentary casts light on this difficult and suggestive teaching and way of understanding.
The fourth and final part of Pine's analysis deal with lines 29-35 of the Heart Sutra including the obscure mantra with which it concludes: "Gate, gate, paragate,parsangate, bodhi svaha." In his commentary, Pine discusses the meaning and significance of this mantra and its relationship to the rest of the text. According to Pine, this mantra "reminds and empowers us to go beyond all conceptual categories. ... With this incantation ringing in our minds, we thus enter the goddess Prajnaparamita, and await our rebirth as Buddhas". (p. 7)
The study concludes with a useful glossary of terms and of people mentioned in the text and with a translation of a slightly later and longer version of the Heart Sutra.
In its detail and concentration, this book would not be the best choice for the beginning student of Buddhism. But for those readers with some basic grounding in the earlier forms of Buddhism which the Heart Sutra critiques and with the Mahayana tradition this book is invaluable. It is a book to be read and studied. Pine gives a thoughtful, well-organized, and learned account of the Heart Sutra that will help the reader approach this seminal text.
This book is particularly useful for the non-Buddhist, the person seeking enlightenment into the nature of the Dharma without necessarily having to take direct refuge in the three diamonds. Sometimes described as "Buddhism in a nutshell", the exact interpretation of the very concise Heart Sutra today, requires inputs of historical insight as well as a systematic understanding concerning the derivation of the terms used therein.
An exact comprehension of the nuances of meaning associated with these terms is also obligatory. Hence the task of acquiring the necessary knowledge to evaluate the statements presented in the Heart Sutra is quite daunting. Having said that, it is clear that the technical insights that Red Pine brings to the task not only embrace a wide perspective but are also applied with the severe logical precision that this path, crafted by a being of enlightenment, demands for its comprehension. In short, the reader of this book has no obligation to look elsewhere for verification of the elements and interpretations presented therein.
In many ways it is difficult to imagine that a profound illumination would not arise in anyone taking the care to read carefully and to think about the insights that flow in line by line comprehension from this work - even without recourse to additional material. In short, the book is the product of a true master working under the simple cover of "translator". In itself it offers a completely consistent passage into the enlightenment lying beyond the peak, wherein the duality of name and form has yet to arise. This is the transcendental realm traversed by Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezig) from which the Buddha of Compassion (that is, compassion itself) appears to the mind of sentient being(s).
Very highly recommended. 5++ stars.